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The Refugee Crisis on Lesvos Island and Why I’m Going

I’ve been studying the refugee situation in Lesvos, Greece for many weeks from afar, trying to make sense of a highly complex situation with many facets.  Following, I’ll explain what I know.  Every fact and figure has branches of complexity which could lead to extensive posts in themselves.  This a basic primer.

Where is Lesvos, Greece and Why Are Refugees Arriving There?

 

On the map, Lesvos is indicated by the letter “E”.  You’ll see that Lesvos, Greece is very close to Turkey.  Refugees fleeing war in Syria, Iraq, and Afghanistan arrive in Turkey and from Turkey they can pay smugglers for a place on a “boat” that will take them across the Aegean Sea (about 10 kilometers or 6 miles) to Lesvos or another Greek island like Chios, Samos or Kos.

Greece is the door to Europe.  Because Greece is a member of the European Union, and 26 European countries are joined in the Schengen Zone, theoretically once a refugee arrives inside a Schengen zone country (like Greece) there are no passport or border controls to get to other Schengen countries (this is changing by the day). Refugees come to Greece for safety and try to move on to wealthier countries like Germany that are more welcoming and more likely to grant asylum and provide resources and education needed to start a new life.

Photo courtesy of © Gabriel Tizón: www.gabrieltizon.com

Photo courtesy of © Gabriel Tizón: www.gabrieltizon.com

Why Don’t They Stay in Turkey?

Many do.  Turkey has taken more refugees than any country in the world — approximately two million people.  Turkey, while considered a “safe” country is a country of no future for refugees.  The Turkish government will not give Syrians refugee status which means no healthcare, no benefits, no money.  Syrian refugees are not legally allowed to work or rent a house.  Language barriers prevent most refugees from continuing their education.  And that is why they risk their lives in the hands of smugglers to try and make it to Europe. The refugee camps in Turkey have been described by many as “hell”.  One can only ponder the desperation of parents willing to brave the sea with their children.

Where Are the Refugees Coming From?

According the UN Relief Agency, in December 2015, 87% of the refugees arriving in Lesvos were from the war-torn countries of Syria, Afghanistan and Iraq.  They are fleeing war, persecution, and starvation (fallout from the destabilization of these countries after U.S. and European intervention).  A small minority are people from Iran, Morocco, Pakistan, Sudan, Eritrea and other countries. At this time, only people from Syria, Afghanistan and Iraq are being allowed to pass through the crucial Macedonian border to continue on towards Germany which is the destination of choice for many.  Currently, people from other countries are being stopped at the border of Macedonia, literally stuck, unable to move forward no matter how desperate, unable to return to Athens if they have no money.

Photo courtesy of © Gabriel Tizón: www.gabrieltizon.com

Photo courtesy of © Gabriel Tizón: www.gabrieltizon.com

How Many Are Coming?

What is occurring is considered by many to be the greatest humanitarian crisis of our time. Eleven-million Syrians have been killed or displaced since the beginning of the civil war.  Most have fled to neighboring countries.  Over four million Syrians are refugees and half of those are children. In 2015, over one million refugees arrived in Europe with over 500,000 arriving via Lesvos’ shores. 

Photo courtesy of © Gabriel Tizón: www.gabrieltizon.com

Photo courtesy of © Gabriel Tizón: www.gabrieltizon.com

Are They All Men?

No. According to the UN Refugee Agency, 56% of the refugees that arrived in Lesvos in December 2015 were women and children.

About Lesvos, Greece

Lesvos is also called Lesbos or Mytilini.  It is 630 square miles (1,632 square kilometers) in size with almost 200 miles of coastline.  It’s population is approximately 85,000 people.  The island has been inhabited since at least 3000 BC.  It was founded in the 11th century BC and is frequently mentioned in Greek mythology.  Imagine that Aristotle lived on Lesvos for a time!  The island was under Turkish rule from 1462 to 1912 when it was taken by Greece.

Until 2014, Lesvos was an idyllic Greek island supported primarily by olive oil production, tourism, fishing, soap, and ouzo production.

In early 2015, large numbers of refugees started coming,  In January 2016, approximately 35,000 people arrived on Lesvos, an average of 1,155 refugees per day despite often freezing weather.

The refugees arrive in overloaded, cheap rubber boats, having paid about 2000 euros (about $2000 US) or more to smugglers in Turkey who sell them fake lifejackets, threaten and separate families at knife or gunpoint (including separating mothers from children), abandon the boat after leaving the shore leaving refugees to steer to unknown territory, and get rich in the process. Already in 2016, at least 244 refugees have drowned on the way.

Lesvos has been overwhelmed by this migration.  Support from the European Union has been slow to arrive.  Much of the humanitarian aid has been provided by local people, independent international volunteers, and small NGO’s.  Money for refugee food, shelter, water, and medical care has largely been provided by people — not governments.  Tourism may be severely impacted as the situation continues, causing further strain on the already struggling people of Lesvos and the Greeks in general.

It is a desperate situation for everyone involved.  Everyday the situation is changing.  I will have to tell you more after I arrive.

Photo courtesy of © Gabriel Tizón: www.gabrieltizon.com

Photo courtesy of © Gabriel Tizón: www.gabrieltizon.com

Why I’m Going to Lesvos

Since the European Peace Walk, I’ve been increasingly aware of the refugee situation.  Walking across the Hungarian and Austrian borders without care, while refugees struggled and died, gave me an increased understanding of my privilege.

As an American, I have privileges and freedoms that millions can only dream of.  I have tried, believe me, to ignore the nagging question: “How can I help?” because the situation seems so large, so overwhelming, so tragic that I can barely face it.  But I can not ignore it anymore and have to answer to my own conscience.  Being as free as I am, with the blessings that I have, there is no acceptable reason why I can’t help in a hands-on way.

“I wondered why somebody didn’t do something.  Then I realized, I am somebody.”— Unknown

I can’t explain why I feel so passionately about this specific cause.  Although I’m not religious, this is as close to a “calling” as I’ve ever received.  I am just one; one voice, one heart, one set of hands.  But I will do what I can do.  I am trusting where my heart leads me.  And that is to Lesvos.

I hope you’ll join me from afar.

Photo courtesy of © Gabriel Tizón: www.gabrieltizon.com

Photo courtesy of © Gabriel Tizón: www.gabrieltizon.com

I am raising funds for refugee aid.  Please click here to donate.  Also, every share or “like” of this post helps spread the word.  Thank you.

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10 Comments

  1. Hi. This interested me greatly as I have contemplated leaving the relative security and luxury of life in the United States to see the refugee situation for myself. As a former print journalist with a few published photos I’m sure I’d want to document what I saw.

    Anyway, good job. You should write a book about this.

    • Thanks Erik. There are so many amazing stories to tell – I could spend a lifetime writing about the many facets of the experience here. If you feel a calling, do answer it. I do hope to write a book about the highlights of my travels.

  2. Laura,
    Thanks for reaching out and asking us to share your blog posts. I would love to read them and share them. And of coarse for those of us who can’t travel abroad to help at present, I/we would love to know how we can support the efforts there and in Europe. The suffering is hard to take in from a distance. I can only imagine how real and heartbreaking it can be to be witness to the needs of so many. Thanks for sharing this and I will share it with other.

    Love to you and all you encounter on this journey,
    Donnella

    • Thanks Donnella for connecting. Sharing the posts is a wonderful help. I am also trying to raise money for all-volunteer organizations that help refugees directly – no middle men or board of directors taking 20% of donations. 100% of the money I raise will go to refugee needs. My fundraiser is here. For many days now, no refugees have come. I am behind on the blog but will update asap. The situation is in flux. So, I’m not doing anything heroic, just helping the locals here get organized for the next wave of refugees, which will certainly come, despite pushback by the Turkish, the EU and now NATO. Love to you back!

  3. I’m interested in seeing your reporting. You may not be “religious” but your more than half way there. Just consider this from the book of James “What does it profit, my brethren, if someone says he has faith but does not have works? Can faith save him? If a brother or sister is naked and destitute of daily food, and one of you says to them, “Depart in peace, be warmed and filled,” but you do not give them the things which are needed for the body, what does it profit? Thus also faith by itself, if it does not have works, is dead. But someone will say, “You have faith, and I have works.” Show me your faith without your works, and I will show you my faith by my works. You believe that there is one God. You do well. Even the demons believe—and tremble! But do you want to know, O foolish man, that faith without works is dead? Was not Abraham our father justified by works when he offered Isaac his son on the altar? Do you see that faith was working together with his works, and by works faith was made perfect? And the Scripture was fulfilled which says, “Abraham believed God, and it was accounted to him for righteousness.” And he was called the friend of God. You see then that a man is justified by works, and not by faith only.

    Likewise, was not Rahab the harlot also justified by works when she received the messengers and sent them out another way?

    For as the body without the spirit is dead, so faith without works is dead also.”

    May God be with you. Prayer is highly recommended.

    • Thanks for reading Mike. Nice to know you’re out there. Thanks also for your thoughts. Seeing such tragedy, prayer kind of happens automatically. One can’t see the hardship and not hope, or pray, that the suffering is relieved and the wars stop.

  4. God Bless and Go Bold. I’ll keep reading and sharing these posts. Getting the word out is the least I can do. Thank you for your willingness to share this journey, for taking the time to document it so eloquently and clearly. I can’t imagine it is an easy thing to stop and do when you’re overwhelmed and in the middle of a crisis. Thank you for answering the call of your broken beautiful heart.

    • Thank you Maria from the bottom of my heart. Sharing my posts is a big help and very appreciated. I will try and speak for those who cannot.

  5. Wonderful post, Laura. This is a great thing you are doing. I’m curious, are you volunteering through a particular organization? I was thinking about it recently but wasn’t finding the info I needed.

    • Hi Megg. Thanks. No, I am an independent volunteer. I tried to hook up with several organizations before I got here but they are so strapped for time that nobody ever got back to me. Today, I worked at Better Days for Moria in the clothing distribution tent giving donated clothes to refugees. It was overwhelming. I think the need for help will be great for some time.

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